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Watching documentaries led to a career teaching military history

Jacob Stoil

As a young child, Jacob Stoil was always interested in military history. Living on the East Coast, he was fortunate that his parents would take him to see battlefields from the Civil War.

“I did not read early,” he said, “but I watched lots of documentaries. The one about the 50th anniversary of D Day had a big impact on me.”

It was a subject that matured along with him. As a youngster he watched the documentaries and tried to understand the battles by working them out with his toy green soldiers. When he got older he wanted to understand more as the topic really interested him.

“I thought maybe there is something positive I can do with this,” he said. “But I was not sure what that would be.”

Eventually he found his path lead to teaching military history and history at the School of Advanced Military Studies in Fort Leavenworth.

Stoil attended the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Maryland, for middle school and high school. His high school class graduated early so that students could spend a semester in Israel. But as a result of the second intifada, the program was delayed and restrictive and many students did not go to Israel that year. He had already spent a summer in Israel as a Bronfman youth fellow and again with Habonim Dror, a progressive labor Zionist youth movement. 

So, he found a semester program in England that interested him. Near the end, his tutor at the college suggested he apply to King’s College London in Great Britain since it had an excellent program in war studies. He applied on the last day applications would be considered. It started him on the path to make his dream a reality.

After Stoil finished his Bachelor of Arts degree in war studies in 2006, he again thought, “Now what do I do with this.” He went on for a master’s degree from King’s College, continuing this focus.

Eventually he pursued and earned a doctorate in history from Oxford University. But his direction seemed clear to him. It led him to a career in professional military education (PME). Along the way, while at Oxford, he met his wife Pelia, whom he married in July 2017.

After teaching for two years at Colgate University in upstate New York and working for six months as a research analyst with the Center for Naval Analyses in Arlington, Virginia, Stoil found his dream job. In January of this year, he joined the staff at the School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth.

The question comes up: How did a nice Jewish boy from the East Coast end up teaching at Fort Leavenworth? Did his Jewish upbringing impact his decisions to teach? Stoil thinks it did.

“Jewish identity is part of everything I do,” he said.

He finds military history “intellectually fun dealing with the infinite complexity. Coming through the Jewish Day School and looking at the tradition of text, I learned that complexity is not something to be scared of, but rather something to embrace and dig into.”

He also touts the summer he spent as a Bronfman Youth Fellow as important to his success.

“One of the great things about the fellowship is that it forces you to interact with lots of different viewpoints,” he said. “You cannot close yourself off from them. You need to listen to different viewpoints and understand what is behind those views. I think that helped me with this career path.”

He believes being raised Jewish enhanced his view of history, and he believes that helped as well.

“How I was raised with being Jewish, I see no problem with seeing that history is part of the present. Judaism stretches back 4,000 years and goes to the future,” he said. “I see that in military history as well. All is part of the continuity. History is not just the past. Being Jewish is being part of a living history. The takeaway from the past has to be present; how it deals with now.”

Finally, his Jewish ethic to serve impacts his decision.

“Most important was the idea that as a Jewish person, I serve to help leave the world a better place than I found it,” he said. “So whatever career I wanted to pursue, I wanted to use my talents and pursue a career that would help me leave the world a better place.”

He added that his Jewish upbringing was a big advantage when he was out in the field working on his research. He did a lot of traveling.

“Wherever I am, I look up the Jewish community and I find someone to be with,” he said. “I have met Jews all over the world. There is loneliness when doing field work, but having a Jewish community has been a big help.”

Stoil is a civilian working for the military. There are many people in the Department of Defense who are civilians. But he did have to demonstrate that the wanted to be at Fort Leavenworth for the right reasons.

“The people I work with are really committed to serving the country,” he said. “They wanted to know that I would be committed as well.”

He and Pelia are enjoying Kansas City.

“We like having some place that is more permanent,” he said. “We like having a place to put down roots. Kansas City is a nice city and really welcoming.”